With the explosive increase in people using social media, such as Facebook, I find myself continually being brought into discussions about various horse training methods or ‘funny’ clips. Usually these are accompanied by a message that says “Suz, isn’t this amazing?”, “Isn’t this funny?” or sometimes “Isn’t this terribly cruel?”. However, often the accompanying message is totally inappropriate considering the content and although the sender thinks I’ll be impressed and excited this then means I have to work out how to gently explain a behavioural perspective.
I remember one of the first things I was sent with a totally inappropriate comment – it was a photo of a donkey hitched to a cart with a load so heavy that the donkey is hanging in the air from his/her harness – very similar to this picture http://www.atomicfunk.com/donkey.html. My friend sent me this picture with a message saying “This is so funny, I know you like donkeys so you’ll love this!”. I didn’t love it or find it amusing. It so vividly illustrates some of the problems working equines face – hard work, heavy loads, noisy streets – their owners dependent on these animals to earn enough money to feed their families, human and animal welfare is inextricably linked. I was shocked and saddened that this was being circulated as something funny – and that my friend thought that I’d actually like it!
Nearly 10 years later I had just started working at the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA, now World Animal Protection) and a video version of the same scenario was circulating – as a ‘funny video’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbQcz1CULeM). I wrote to one of the newspapers that was promoting it in their online video section: I highlighted the plight of the donkey in the scene and they replied saying that it’s what their readers enjoy! Judging by the thousands of views and comments, they were right.
Then, in 2009 I was visiting The Palestinian Territories in my role at WSPA, working with the Palestine Wildlife Society in their community project to improve equine welfare. They partner with donkey owners in Bethlehem and surrounding areas to explore together what changes they can make to the way they manage and care for their donkeys, mules and horses to improve their welfare and quality of life. One of the community representatives approached me with a mobile phone and showed me the same video of the donkey mentioned above. I thought that he also found it ‘funny’ and that I’d use the opportunity to discuss overloading with the owners. However, he showed me the clip and then said, through an interpreter, “Isn’t it so terrible? Does the owner not care? Does he know not to load the cart that much?” I was very moved – at least not everyone finds it amusing.
Does the means justify the end?
A more recent example of a video clip with an inappropriate message is a video of a horse competing at high level dressage. Apparently the horse was trained using clicker training and I was sent this as an example of something impressive because so many people know I promote reward-based training methods.
Watching the video I observed a highly stressed horse, mouthing, swishing tail, very tense. I was not impressed. “But he was trained using clicker training” – Don’t get me wrong, in the right hands clicker training can be a wonderful and positive training experience for human and horse, I promote reward-based methods of training. However, clicker training can also be done in a way that is not a positive experience for the horse. Maybe the horse had learnt some movements through clicker training, but was it done well? Did the trainer work for long periods frustrating the horse to get the desired movement? Was the horse given the opportunity to walk away to graze or have a break when he wanted to? The video showed a very ‘unhappy’ horse, irrespective of if clicker training was used.
A third, and final, example is a natural horsemanship video that was beautifully edited, with soulful music, showing a lady riding a horse bareback and bridle-less. The horse lies down on command and other similar tricks – accompanied by a message “How lovely, something for us all to aspire to”. Again, what does observing the horse tell us? The horse was hyper-vigilant and tense, looking for every subtle cue from his owner. This is most likely the result of being trained so extensively using negative reinforcement that the horse has learnt to respond to very subtle cues because otherwise the aversive/pressure will escalate, the horse had become ‘shut down’, like a robot. Impressive but only because this shows how horses can learn to respond to incredibly subtle cues.
It is important not to see a photo or video and make assumptions about what happens during the rest of the animals’ lives and training sessions. However, we should always encourage people to consider what the horses are telling us in such footage rather than accepting the message from the person sharing it.
It is interesting and sad that people are so impressed by what we can make horses do and not by what they do just by being horses. Why do we find it so impressive when a human can train a horse lie down? Because people intrinsically know that as a prey species this is a big deal for a horse? Many people consider dressage to take the horse’s natural movement and put it under control of the rider. However, behaviour is only normal and natural if it is done in context and for the ‘normal’ amount of time. Thus a horse in a field spinning quickly to avoid a threat is natural, spinning repeatedly as a trick is not – yet people so often find such abnormal behaviour impressive.
So, what would impress me?
What would I forward on to other people as an impressive horsemanship? What would I want to share? I think the answer goes something like this: A video clip showing a group of horses grazing in a large open space, a human approaches and one of the horses leaves the herd and approaches the person with relaxed body language suggesting this is because he wants to, not because he feels he has to. The horse is greeted with a big scratch. Then horse and owner walk off together, exploring the landscape, sometimes walking, sometimes riding. If they meet an obstacle that the horse is unsure of the human lets the horse take his time to consider the situation, rewards calm behaviour and they calmly continue on their way. The horse is allowed to graze and browse, the human might take time to photograph the landscape but the horse quietly waits because they are used to spending such calm time together and as such he isn’t having to watch the human for every small command she might give. Or, getting a little more mainstream, training that takes things step by step, building up the horse’s confidence and adapting if the horse shows signs of stress. This is the type of video I would think as something to aspire to – but I suspect it would never get a million hits on YouTube.
By Suzanne Rogers, IAABC Certified Equine Behaviourist